WASHINGTON — THE illegal-drug crisis in the United States now costs the nation at least $100 billion annually - or $1,500 a year for a typical family of four. Experts say that the economic and social damage to the US from drugs is escalating. The nation's economy is being crippled, property values in city neighborhoods are being reduced, families are being destroyed.
President Bush will outline his long-awaited war on illegal narcotics in a nationwide address tonight. But experts caution that this battle won't be quickly won.
``The long-range picture remains bleak,'' warns a report issued earlier this year by the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.
Worldwide supplies of cocaine, opium, and marijuana are increasing. In the US, tens of millions of people are estimated to have used illegal drugs during the past year. Some 6.5 million Americans need immediate treatment for drug abuse, experts say, while treatment facilities are available for only 250,000.
Michael French, an economist with Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, says the drug crisis now ranks as one of the top two or three social problems confronting the US, along with alcohol abuse and crime.
``But drugs and crime are linked in many ways,'' Dr. French observes, which probably explains why Americans rank drugs as the No. 1 national problem.
Ironically, the drug crisis appears to be worsening at a time when drug use by Americans, particularly the middle class, is declining. Nationwide consumption of cocaine reached its all-time high in 1985. Other drugs peaked even earlier: marijuana (1978), heroin (1975), hallucinogens (1975), tranquilizers (1977). Even legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine are on a downward slope.
But the illegal drug culture has become deeply embedded, with several million hard-core users, many of whom find themselves trapped in crime-ridden neighborhoods where even the police feel outgunned. Meanwhile, millions of casual drug users are spending billions of dollars on drugs, enriching dealers who have built international distribution networks that reach into South America and Asia.
Obviously the drug crisis could end overnight if Americans would wean themselves from narcotics. William Bennett, director of national drug policy, says that what the nation really needs is moral reform.
``The long-term solution to the drug problem ... is the reaffirmation of the moral authority of the family and the church and the school. We know that if children are brought up well, if their psychological disposition is such that they're not inclined to go in this direction, that they're likely going to be safe from drugs,'' Dr. Bennett says.
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh says what Americans need is ``a change in values.''
Until that happens, Bennett and President Bush will push for a get-tough approach to drugs. Sources in Congress expect the President tonight to call for several new initiatives:
Higher spending. Federal outlays, which were $3.46 billion for antidrug efforts in fiscal year 1988, rose to $5.4 billion this year. Mr. Bush is expected to call for between $7 billion and $8 billion for fiscal year 1990.
International efforts. Colombia's drug crisis illustrates the need for US help to nations trying to curb the production and export of narcotics. Bush is expected to put much greater emphasis on helping nations like Colombia.
Law enforcement. States and localities need more prison space and more manpower to fight drugs. Bush is expected to call for increased spending at both the federal and state levels.
Drug money. Billions of dollars flow back to drug cartels every year, but this requires money laundering through American businesses and banks. Washington will crack down on this process, Bennett says.
Treatment. Experts widely agree that addicts need more help to get off drugs. Bush is expected to come up with some new money for treatment and prevention.
Bennett makes it clear where the process will begin. In a television interview, he said: ``The first thing you have to do in these [drug-infested] communities is restore order. ... That's what we have in the suburbs, and that's what we should have in the inner city.''
Inner-city neighborhoods need ``an opportunity to breathe,'' Bennett says, and ``they're not going to breathe while there ... are drive-by shootings going down on their streets.''
Bennett, who has been studying the drug problem for months, says that law enforcement officials need to differentiate between the three types of persons involved in narcotics: drug dealers, casual users, and addicts. The strategy: dealers should be sent to prison for a long time; casual users should no longer be ignored, but should be caught and punished by depriving them of their privileges, such as their drivers' licenses, or by confiscating their automobiles if they are found to contain drugs; and addicts should be given help to get off drugs, and given opportunities to start their lives over.
The Bush war on drugs is expected to be popular with most Americans, but there are still political risks for the Republican White House. Already Bush is being sniped at from two sides.
On one side, Arnold Trebach, president of the Drug Policy Foundation, complains that the White House is ``playing to the crowd'' by submitting to the ``rising hysteria'' over drugs.
Richard Dennis, on the advisory board of the Drug Policy Foundation, contends that there are ``tens of millions of Americans who strongly believe that people should be allowed to do what they want - even if it injures themselves - as long as they don't present a clear and present danger to others.''
These critics charge that the drug war sounds like the old Prohibition struggle against alcohol, and it is doomed to fail just as that struggle was.
Meanwhile, Democrats are looking for ways to capitalize on the drug issue by proving the Republicans to be ineffective. In a new study, the Democratic Policy Committee notes that when he was vice president, Bush was put in charge of the South Florida Task Force against drugs. Despite that effort, Florida remained the No. 1 entry point for cocaine, the study notes.
Democrats also charge that the GOP has a record of cutting antidrug efforts. For example, ``the [Republican] administration proposed to cut more than $1 billion from state and local law enforcement assistance'' between 1987 and 1989, the study notes.
Democratic willingness to attack Bush on the eve of his speech indicates this could be a treacherous issue for the White House. If the war on drugs succeeds, Bush may get the credit. But if it fails, Democrats are ready to dump all the blame on the man in the Oval Office.